Monday, October 6, 2008


News-Sentinel, The (Fort Wayne, IN) - January 23, 1993
James had heard Sarah was back in Tennessee Ridge.

Everybody at church was talking about it. James didn't go up there much anymore, but he'd heard the news.

Sarah's daddy from New York had gone to see her at that Christian school in Indiana, and now he was trying to take her away from her mama. There had been a write-up in the Clarksville paper about it. They hadn't mentioned her name. But everybody who went to the Tennessee Ridge Baptist Church knew who they were talking about.

James Westerman, 18, had heard something about a custody hearing at the county courthouse here in Erin, where he was living with his mother.

But he didn't expect to see Sarah there that day.

James was sitting in the front row of the courtroom with a couple of friends, waiting to see what the judge had to say about them ripping off the Ridgetop Market in August.

A bunch of people from the church walked in ahead of Sarah. She was wearing a pretty blue dress, with that pale blonde hair tucked up in a French braid. She didn't look up. He couldn't tell whether she'd seen him.

There was no point in trying to speak to her. The folks from the church had her surrounded.

He knew what they were thinking:

See, Sarah? We tried to tell you James was no good. Now you can see for yourself.

James and Sarah had been Sunday school sweethearts.

They met at the Baptist church in the summer of '91. James, 17 then, was a high school dropout who smoked pot and drank.He'd started going to church with his cousin Danny, hoping to straighten out.

James noticed Sarah right away. She was pretty and nice. He could tell she liked him, too.

He had long hair then, and an earring. He wore Harley-Davidson T-shirts and scruffy jeans. But Sarah didn't care. She liked him for who he was, not what he looked like.

James had never had a girlfriend who cared about him the way Sarah did. She was the one who helped him stop drinking. It wasn't until she left that he started again.

Sarah had problems of her own, he knew. Her stepfather, Frank, was in prison for molesting her and her sister. Frank had been a real churchgoer, apparently. Sarah never talked about it, though, so James didn't ask.

Sarah's mom, whom the kids at church called Miss Mary, didn't like James. She didn't want them to go anywhere unchaperoned. If they went for a walk, they couldn't go any farther than the neighbor's. Miss Mary wouldn't even let Sarah ride the church bus to go soul-winning on Saturdays - if James was going.

Sarah would get mad at her mother. She just wanted to be like other kids, go to dances and listen to rock music and hang out at the A&W. Sometimes when Miss Mary left the house, Sarah would call James, and he'd come over. That was about the only time they could be alone.

They talked about running off and getting married. Sarah was too young, of course - 14 at the time. But they liked to imagine what it would be like.

Around Christmas, Sarah told James she thought she was pregnant.

They were scared. James wanted to wait, just to make sure she was right. But Sarah couldn't live with the guilt. She wanted to tell her mom.

James drove Sarah down to the Bi-Rite grocery store, and she called Miss Mary on the pay phone. Miss Mary told them to stay right there. She was coming to get Sarah. James was to follow them back to the house.

What an awful night that was. Miss Mary called the preacher and James' mom. Preacher Bryan said Sarah couldn't go to the school at Tennessee Ridge Baptist Church anymore, that she'd be a bad influence. She wasn't to see James. They didn't say what was going to become of the baby.

James went to church a few more times after that, but they wouldn't let him near Sarah. She couldn't even turn around in her pew and glance at him without Miss Mary scolding her.

Sarah called James in tears whenever Miss Mary left the house. But she didn't leave often, since she worked at home as a seamstress and baby sitter. They never could talk for more than a few minutes.

Not long after that, James heard Sarah was gone.

He never did hear anything about the baby.
Sarah held the envelope in her hands, staring at the name written above the return address.

''Well, don't just sit there," the other girls said. "Open it!"

Sarah hadn't heard from her father in five years. She hadn't even known where he was. A year or two earlier, some friends offered to help her find him, but they didn't get very far.

Lucius' letter explained that Sarah's sister, Heather, had tracked him down with the help of the Social Security Administration. Heather had told him that Sarah was at Hephzibah House .

Sarah figured she had some explaining to do. It sounded as if her father had phoned Hephzibah House and spoken with Pastor Ron Williams, who runs both the school and Believers Baptist Church.

''I don't know what Mom and Pastor Williams told you, but I've been sent here because of Mom's religious beliefs," Sarah wrote in her first letter to her father, dated March 7. "Or so I've been told."

It had been almost a month since Sarah had arrived at Hephzibah House . She still couldn't believe she was here.

Her mother had warned her that she might send her to some kind of reform school, after they discovered she wasn't really pregnant. Sarah never dreamed she was serious.

She thought they were going to dinner when she got in the car that day in early February. Next thing she knew, she was in Indiana.

This school was unlike any place she'd ever imagined. There were alarms on the windows and doors. Disrespectful girls got paddled. Sarah had been too scared to even think about getting in trouble. She just wanted to go home.

That was a long way off, though. Pastor Williams believed that it took 15 months to convert wayward girls into godly young women. Sarah had 14 months to go.

Sarah had lost touch with her father shortly after she had moved from Middletown, N.Y., to Tennessee Ridge, Tenn., with her mother, stepfather, sister and brother in 1987.

The move angered her father, who had remained in New York with his new wife and stepchildren. Eventually, though, her parents struck an informal truce: Her father wouldn't bother her mother about visitation rights, and she wouldn't bother him about child support.

Now that Lucius knew where she was, Sarah hoped he could arrange to call or visit her at Hephzibah House .

As the weeks passed, though, that seemed less likely to happen.

Pastor Williams told Sarah the school had to be cautious when dealing with "broken homes." They could set up a three-way conference call between her father, her mother and Sarah - provided, of course, that one of the live-in staff members monitored the call.

Lucius didn't like that idea. He didn't want to come all the way to Indiana just to have a supervised visit, either. So for now, Sarah would have to get to know him through the mail.

It was hard to know what to write. Five years was a long time. She had so many questions. How old was he now? When was his birthday? What did he do for a living?

There was a lot to fill him in on, too.

Lucius knew that Sarah's stepfather had molested her and Heather. He was worried that Sarah blamed herself for what Frank had done.

The counselors whom the judge had recommended the girls talk to had been concerned about that, too. Sarah had hated those sessions. She didn't like it when people tried to probe her thoughts like that.

She assured her father that she didn't feel guilty. It had taken her a while, but she had forgiven her stepfather. God would judge Frank.

Sarah wanted to reminisce with her father about her childhood. It was so long ago, she could hardly remember Middletown.

She also wanted to talk with him about God.

''You told me when I was a little girl that you were saved," she wrote. "Are you really? Did you ever come to a place where you realized you were a sinner, on your way to a hot hell without hope?"

Lucius never answered her questions as completely as she hoped. He was too preoccupied with quizzing her about Hephzibah House .

Her mother told her Lucius had been calling Heather at work, asking similar questions.

Well, what could Sarah tell him, with the staff ladies reading her letters before they were mailed?

Of course she was homesick. That was to be expected. She was, after all, the only person here with a Tennessee drawl. The others were always teasing her about that.

There were 11 other girls with Sarah at Hephzibah House . Judging from the number of beds in the basement dormitory, there was space for nearly 30 girls - too many, as far as Sarah was concerned. But then, she was being reminded constantly that what she wanted wasn't necessarily what was best.

The educational system here was similar to the one at Sarah's old school in Tennessee Ridge. Both used standardized Christian education packets that allow students to work at their own pace. The transfer had put Sarah behind, though. She would have to work hard all summer if she wanted to be studying at a 10th-grade level by fall.

There were also ovens to scrub, church buses to hose down, potatoes to chop. One day, the girls helped butcher three deer, which Sarah enjoyed because it reminded her of hunting down in Tennessee. She had never been hunting herself, but she'd always wanted to try it. Only the Williams family, which lived above them at the school, and the four-woman staff got to eat the venison. Health regulations prohibited the girls from eating the meat.

Mondays were Sarah's worst days, because she had to do the laundry. It was always hard to get it all done.

''I wish I could tell you everything I know about this place," she wrote in a letter to her father postmarked April 24. "But I'd probably leave something out."

Sarah wasn't allowed to discuss her past life with the other girls at Hephzibah House . Pictures or mementos from boyfriends were forbidden. All those Bible lessons and discussions about morality, though, made it hard to avoid thinking about the past.

As the weeks went by, Sarah began to feel increasingly guilty about the days when she sneaked cigarettes and fooled around with boys. In retrospect, it seemed like each boyfriend had gotten her into worse trouble than the one before.

Sarah apologized to her mother over the phone for being so rebellious. And she told her father that coming to Hephzibah House may have been the best thing that could have happened to her.

''I'm gonna be frank with ya, Dad," she wrote in July. "I am considered a slut at home by many people. I'm sorry to say that I was one."

That same month, Sarah's mother wrote to tell her that Heather was pregnant. Sarah was shocked to hear that her older sister was planning to marry the baby's father.

Couldn't they see that Heather was too young to get married? She was just 18. And her boyfriend wasn't even a Christian, as far as Sarah knew.

The wedding was scheduled for Aug. 22. Sarah was glad to hear that her father would be there. Her mother had always told the girls that she would help them find Lucius before they got married, so he could give them away at their weddings.

Well, that dream was coming true, at least for Heather. Sarah was the one who would be absent.

She had been upset when the staff ladies told her she couldn't go. She ached to show her father the Tennessee countryside.

She wondered whether he would see Kentucky Lake. What would he think of the tidy brick home they'd remodeled with the church youth leader's help?

Sarah was so proud of that house. A real home. Nothing like that one-room cabin they'd lived in before Frank went to prison.

''Maybe next time, I can be your tour guide," Sarah wrote to Lucius.

In the meantime, she savored the few things at Hephzibah House that reminded her even slightly of home: Picking corn in the country air. Sitting around a campfire during a belated Labor Day celebration.

School had officially started at Hephzibah House in September. Sarah wasn't nearly as interested in square roots and ancient world history, though, as she was in the coming election.

Sarah didn't have access to newspapers or television. But she heard plenty about politics from Pastor Williams.

She was beginning to fear that the end of the world was coming soon - especially if Bill Clinton and Al Gore won the election.

''Al Gore is an evil man, even if he is from Tennessee," Sarah wrote her father in late October.

''I don't know how you feel on issues, but I'll gladly tell you how I feel. Abortion is murder! Alternative lifestyles are sick and sinful, and frankly, those fags and dykes who get AIDS deserve it, in my opinion."

The Sunday after Clinton won the election, Sarah went forward at Williams' church to repent for her sins.

''I wasn't really saved," she explained in a letter she wrote to Lucius dated Nov. 15. "I thought everyone surely believed me. But I knew I wasn't. I was filthy within."

It had been nearly a year since that awful night when Sarah told her mother she thought she was pregnant.

In just a few months, she would be going back to Tennessee.

''So much will be different when I go home," Sarah wrote in mid-December, not realizing that would be her last letter to Lucius from Hephzibah House .

''I wonder what it will be like?"
Am I the devil because I have long hair?"

Sarah rolled her eyes at her father's ponytailed attorney, Anthony LaBella. This wasn't the kind of father-daughter reunion she had anticipated.

She had been drying dishes when she got the news. Pastor Williams had taken her upstairs to see the sheriff's deputy and look over the court order.

A six-hour visit, the order said, followed by a series of hearings that would force her parents to settle this Hephzibah House question once and for all.

If Sarah's father had his way, she would soon go back to Middletown with him. It would be up to the judge to decide.

Sarah had been happy to see her father at the lawyer's office. She squeezed his hand all the way back to the Holiday Inn.

She was relieved when her father took her to his room so they could be alone. Lucius' attorney and private investigator made her nervous.

Later that afternoon, though, Sarah found herself sitting across a table from the two men at a nearby restaurant. Her father sat hunched beside her, softly moaning. He had forgotten to bring his emphysema medicine, and his lungs were throbbing.

Sarah looked at the attorney, who had demanded that she call him "Toots." She thought his question about the devil and long hair was stupid.

''No," she said. Then she quickly added: "You know what the Bible says about men who have long hair? That it's a shame."

Sarah cited a Bible verse that she thought might back her up on that one. She warned him that she wasn't sure if she had it right, though.

The men questioned her for more than an hour. They asked about her schoolwork, meals, bathroom privileges.

Sarah couldn't resist telling them about the time a staff lady startled them by demonstrating the alarms on the windows, or about the gross "protein drink" they got instead of meals if they didn't get their weekly Bible verses memorized.

She didn't say anything when the lawyer asked her about Frank, though. By the time he started quizzing her about her menstrual cycle - he seemed very interested when she confessed that she had missed six months of periods while at Hephzibah House - she decided she'd had enough.

Sarah excused herself to go to the ladies' room. When she came back, the men were ready to leave.

Pastor Williams was waiting outside when Sarah got back to Hephzibah House that night.

The meeting with her father was considered an "unapproved visit" - a violation of school policy. Sarah would have to leave.

That night, a little more than 10 months since she arrived at Hephzibah House , Sarah got three more visitors: her mother, sister and brother-in-law, come to drive her back to Tennessee.
James didn't know whether Sarah loved him anymore.

He still cared about her. He hoped the judge would let her stay in Tennessee. Not that it would make much difference. He'd given up any hope of them getting back together.

James' case was the first one to be heard that afternoon.

He hated to tell the judge that he couldn't remember most of what happened that night at the Ridgetop Market, but it was true. He'd been awfully drunk.

The judge looked at James and his friend sternly. He told them he hoped they understood the seriousness of what they'd done.

James wondered whether the judge was going to send him to prison.

He got two years of probation instead.

James was grateful. He intended to get a job and a high school diploma. He wasn't going to drink anymore, that was for sure.

He couldn't help looking at Sarah as he walked back to his seat.

Their eyes met, just for a moment.

It looked to him like she'd been crying.